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Uncovering the Unique Stories within the Assay Office Archives

Published: 24th March 2024

Uncovering the Unique Stories within the Assay Office Archives

Back in 2008 when the Sheffield Assay Office moved from the City Centre to Hillsborough, the office archives were lodged with Sheffield City Archives to ensure their longevity and to allow greater access.  Over the years archiving has taken place and the Office is fortunate to have had the dedication of Alex Cave, Cataloguing Archivist to work through these papers, documents and ledgers ensuring that the collection will continue to be even more accessible in the future.  Here is Alex’s story to date:

Archive collections tell the story of people and places; they record their activities and reveal their history. My job as a cataloguing archivist is to make sure that these unique stories are discoverable by providing contextual descriptions of archive material and making them available via online catalogues. At the moment, I am fortunate enough to be working on the papers of the Sheffield Assay Office held by the Sheffield City Archives. With over 250 years’ worth of material in the collection, it is proving to be a goldmine (pun intended!) of documentary evidence for the work of the Assay Office and Sheffield’s silversmithing history.

Before I started cataloguing the archive, I knew very little about assaying, particularly its technical intricacies, but as I approach the end of the project, I realise that I have acquired a whole new vocabulary and will forever know the difference between cupellation and atomic absorption. I have also found it fascinating discovering the ‘human’ aspect of the Assay Office and getting to know different generations of Assay Masters. Their passion for assaying and Sheffield silver certainly shines through in their personal and working papers.

The collection is also home to papers that tell the stories of makers working in the industry, including my personal favourite, the Sheffield based designer maker, Joyce Himsworth (1905–90). A talented silversmith, who excelled at enamelling, she studied at the Sheffield School of Art and exhibited regularly at the Goldsmiths’ Company exhibitions. Working mainly to commission, her papers contain beautifully rendered designs for a vast array of pieces, including (but not limited to) jewellery, church plate, christening sets, medals, buttons and cigarette cases. I’m positive that her designs, sketches and research notes will prove to be an inspiration to the next generation of silversmiths in Sheffield.

However, the most intriguing and incongruous item I have found in the collection is a small envelope of dried rose petals originally found in a Day Book for 1789. With no accompanying contextual information as to why or how they found themselves in the volume, we are just left to speculate about their history. Perhaps a wedding keepsake, pressed to remember the special day, but then forgotten; or an attempt to capture the beauty of a rose noticed on the way to work. Who knows? Archivists are usually adept at unravelling the secrets found in archives, but very occasionally, their stories remain a mystery.

Click here to find out more about the archives, including how to access them, or contact Sheffield City Archives here.

Or click here to get in touch.

The Sheffield Assay Office was established in 1773, under an Act of Parliament and today the company assays and hallmarks the precious metals - silver, gold, platinum and palladium. Sheffield Assay Office is one of only four UK assay offices who all work to uphold the Hallmarking Act of 1973 and continue to ensure consumer protection for customers purchasing precious metals.

To find out more about the whole range of services offered by Sheffield Assay Office, such as our hallmarking and analytical services, please email us at or complete the contact form on our website at,

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